Pressed for Time

By Laetitia Millois 18 October 2013

PYIN OO LWIN — With its horse-drawn carriages and charming colonial-era architecture, Pyin Oo Lwin feels very much like a place with one foot planted firmly in the past. But even here, in this hill town some 70 km east of Mandalay that once served as the summer capital of Myanmar’s former British rulers, some remnants of the past don’t stand a chance against the forces of change.

While many foreign visitors are drawn to Myanmar precisely because it often feels like a land that time forgot, those who live here tend to be less sentimental about what they see as symbols of their “backwardness,” prompting some to jettison items that many a museum would covet.

“We have computers now; we don’t need this anymore,” says one Pyin Oo Lwin resident, referring to a vintage cast-iron printing press sitting on a street corner, apparently abandoned. Manufactured in 1855 by John G. Sherwin of London, it is identical to one now on display at a museum in Melbourne, Australia—except that after long exposure to the elements, it is covered in rust.

This is a sad fate for an object that has long since outlived its usefulness, but remains a thing of beauty. Its details—the claw feet, antique colonnades and embedded brass plaque—are testimony to its creator’s attention to aesthetic, as well as practical, principles.

As difficult as it may be to understand why anyone would treat something of this quality with such evident disdain, it did not take long to find someone who saw things in a different light.

“They are too heavy and take up too much space,” said the owner of a nearby printing shop, matter-of-factly. He lamented that he had two unwieldy old presses of his own, which he considered more of a burden than anything else. “I don’t know what to do with them!”

As for their value as artifacts of the past, he scoffed at the idea that anybody would want such reminders of “how poor we are”. Finding a nice “retirement home” for these old workhorses of a bygone era was also out of the question, at least locally. “There is no museum in Pyin Oo Lwin,” declared one young woman when asked if there wasn’t a more suitable place to put an antique printing press than out on the curb.

But if Myanmar’s people were really as in tune with the times as they would like to be, they would soon realize that the worthless “junk” all around them could, in many cases, fetch high prices from aficionados of obsolete technology. Keen to revive the “authenticity” of old-school mechanical printing presses, many analogue lovers scour the Internet for machines that take them back to a time before printing—and seemingly everything else—went digital.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, they say. But if Myanmar is to preserve its unique character, its people would do well to hold on to at least some of the things that have served them so well for so long. If they do, they may discover that they are far richer than they realize.

This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.